Russia's upper house of parliament has set a date of March 26 for the country's presidential election. Acting President Vladimir Putin is seen as a clear favorite, but the main question now is who will run against him. RFE/RL's Floriana Fossato reports there are signs former Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov, considered Putin's strongest rival, may decide not to run.
London, 6 January 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Russians will go to the polls March 26 to elect a president following a decision yesterday affirming the date by the upper house Federation Council.
Council members voted overwhelmingly (145-1) to approve the date. The vote follows the resignation of president Boris Yeltsin December 31.
Acting President Vladimir Putin, a former KGB official who rose to prominence just four months ago after being named prime minister and later acting president by Yeltsin, is seen as the clear favorite. He is credited by many voters as leading the military campaign against Islamic rebels in Chechnya.
Putin, announcing the official start of the campaign, told reporters the election process must be clean and give all candidates an equal opportunity:
"We all have to do whatever is possible so the campaign is conducted within the framework of the law. It should be absolutely clean, without any compromising documents, aiming toward one thing: the creation of equal opportunities for all participants. If we succeed in that and everything seems to show that we succeed, this will not only bring positive results, but also will contribute to the consolidation of society. This goal is, in my opinion, most important."
Putin told Russian television this week that Yeltsin stepped down early in order to boost his chances of becoming the next president. He said Yeltsin told him to "take care of Russia."
Our correspondent reports the main question now -- with Putin enjoying such strong support -- is who will challenge him for the presidency.
The leading candidates are expected to include Grigory Yavlinsky of the "Yabloko" bloc, communist leader Gennady Zyuganov, ultranationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky, and former Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov. Primakov was once considered the clear front-runner, but has seen his support erode in the aftermath of the Chechen military campaign.
Zyuganov, in comments yesterday, criticized the handing over of power from Yeltsin to Putin. He said his campaign will focus on ways to overcome what he said were "10 years of destruction and confrontation" under Yeltsin.
"The hand-over [of power] was like when you hand over the keys of a warehouse. In my opinion, these things should happen in a federal session, with the participation of both houses of the parliament. Concerning the overall situation, as we all know, these 10 years of destruction and confrontation have come to an end and you have to look for solutions to get out of this very difficult situation."
All eyes are on Primakov. There are signs he may withdraw from the race.
Primakov originally announced his candidacy last month just before parliamentary elections in which his "Fatherland-All Russia" bloc fared worse than expected.
In the aftermath of Yeltsin's resignation, some of Primakov's staunchest allies seem to be in the process of withdrawing their support.
Duma deputy Oleg Morozov, one of the leaders of "All Russia," said yesterday that Primakov may run without the support of the movement. In comments reported by Russian media, Morozov said Primakov was "deceived" by the result of the parliamentary vote and could even decide against running.
In another sign of eroding support, Interfax news agency yesterday quotes St. Petersburg Governor Vladimir Yakovlev as saying the coordination council of "All Russia" has voted to support Putin in the presidential race.